What I Learned this Summer

At midnight on August 8th I finished the third term paper I needed to make up from a previous semester. In total I wrote over fifty pages of research/analysis essays in about four and a half weeks. I felt burned out after the first, completely dumb after the second, but somehow managed to pull the third together in time.

And I learned something about my anxiety: it does not make sense. It does and it does not. I accomplished a feat that only six months ago was absolutely impossible and all I did was tell myself “I’m done with this fear. I’m putting it away and I’m not thinking about it anymore.”

In short, I willed myself to “get over it.” And it really was that easy, but only in hindsight. I hit the wall, the one you can either scale or stare at blankly. I found the point of despair where there is nothing left to lose. I took a chance, forgot my pride, forgot myself, and I wrote.

But the journey to that point of despair was difficult and painfully, which is exactly why it is not helpful to say “get over it” to someone who suffers from anxiety. If they have not reached that point for themselves, or if despair does not move them, no amount of outside shame or coercion will shake them loose. Change, real change, comes from within.

The Master stays behind;

that is why she is ahead.

She is detached from all things;

that is why she is one with them.

Because she has let go of herself,

she is perfectly fulfilled.

I did not read the Tao Te Ching while I was writing my essays, it made me anxious. But when I returned to it I understood benefits of mindfulness, humility, and detachment. I was bound tight by a fear that I would fail, lose my job, lose my career, and be set adrift to ponder all the questions that regularly plague my kind.

Then I realized that none of that mattered. I was writing a term paper on Kurosawa Akira’s Rashoumon, not a C.V. or a scholarship application. I was not in an interview, or a department meeting, or teaching a class. Criticism is not my only skill, academia is not the only career path available, and life only has a goal if you believe that beginnings and endings are mutually exclusive.

I was able to write because I stopped thinking “It’s not good enough,” “It has to be perfect,” “My writing expresses who I am.” None of it matters. I am not myself. I do not need to write, or teach, or attend classes. But if I choose to I will write without any concern for the outcome. I am detached from my writing. My writing is not me. I am not myself.

When I choose not to think of myself, or my peers, or my audience, I am free to to write, or teach, or learn without fear. This liberty translates my work into right action. If my work receives a bad grade, or poor review, or fails to stick I know that I am beyond it. Success and failure are neither good nor bad. But, if I can work without worries, I can be fulfilled, regardless of the outcome.

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